Chapter 1

Caution: This Fantasy Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, Mult, Romantic, Reluctant, High Fantasy, Oral Sex, Anal Sex, Exhibitionism, Voyeurism, Public Sex, Slow, .

Desc: Fantasy Sex Story: Chapter 1 - A young hunter lad crosses a stream into a no-man's land between Yelfen and human lands and collects three 'coup' from each of his most honored but feared rivals. Further on, across the forbidden river he finds a sacred island with a small crystal cave of wonders where he finds not only knowledge but a purpose to this life, returning 'home' an honored and wiser young man. An unusual coming of age story.

Larke awoke at the first sound of the heavy footsteps coming up the narrow wooden staircase to his upstairs garret bedroom, but recognizing the heaviness of their gait, the lad just grumbled at the interruption and made no motion to arise at all from bed. The hands shaking him awake a few moments later were not in the least bit gentle but since they belonged to Larke’s step-father Havril, the lad would have been truly astonished if any signs of actual affection had been offered. Indeed, such a consideration on any day would have been a first and never-before encountered occurrence!

“Up you lazy boy! No time to sleep the day away, there’s honest work to be done!” Havril the Miller bellowed, shaking the lad harshly yet once more, nearly knocking the lad off his cot entirely. “Mildrad has hurt his arm downstairs in the mill and you’ll need to finish the rice flour he’s started.”

An all-to common occurrence, alas. Mildrad was not the most graceful of lads and a water mill full of rotating gears and belts, not to mention rotating stones was not the safest sort of place for a fellow that tended to trip over his own moccasins on a near-daily basis. Odds were the lad’s cut or scratch would be trivial and require only minor wound tending from Mistress Erminga, the village healer and medicus, who’d throw him out by his ear from her hut if at least a half-dozen stitches or more weren’t required. Life in the Mórdene Swamp wasn’t for the weak or faint of constitution, whether man or woman. On the other hand, his step-father was so lazy these days that he wouldn’t recognize what a day of honest labor was, even if it rode into the village perched on the back of a giant swamp lizard!

When he was younger and a bit more foolish, Larke might have remarked on this trait of extreme slothfulness ... and very likely earned a sound beating in return. Some days, for the sake of own pride, it might be still occasionally worth the risk, but not today. Larke held his tongue and continued to feign sleep for another moment or two until his annoyed step-father roughly grabbed and shook his shoulders harshly.

Larke peaked open just a single eye and replied with weary but distinct condescension, repaying a thousand prior slights, snubs and outright insults with just a tiny small measure of repayment in kind, but layered in excessive courtesy. “As I am certain that Mistress Frigyth has reminded you on multiple occasions over the last nine years and bit more, I am craft-bonded to her service as an apprentice, commanded by her authority only ... save for common tasks given by our village council in fair rotation, posted weekly in advance. I have such a later duty later today, to bear watchful guard over the bathing grounds of the mill pond that the ladies might bathe this late afternoon. After this council assigned shift is completed at dusk, I must then immediately heed the request of my craft-mistress and spend many long hours tonight obtaining the all-too elusive and nocturnal fire-bellied frog, for they are urgently needed at once by my mistress for certain medicines needed by Ermingra, our Mistress of Healing. Alas, my prior resting for these forthcoming labors was also quite directly instructed by mistress, that I might better perform each of these necessary and lengthy tasks later to everyone’s better satisfaction.”

Larke risked a quick peak outside of his small bedroom window but saw that the sun was still full in the sky that afternoon in late summer, only perhaps an hour after the sounding horn for the communal midday meal, which he had partaken of hastily before his short nap. He ignored the last violent thump of his step-father’s strong angrily clinched right fist as he stomped away in enraged silence out of the room. The master miller would have to attend to the duties of his own mill this afternoon, instead of lounging away the long hot humid afternoon at his brother Brom’s brewery next door, as he was usually wont to, downing endless pints of first small (and later much more potent) beer!

The blow to his back was ill-aimed, due to the miller’s growing enraged temper, and Larke didn’t even attempt to mask any minor discomfort from this blow. He’d endured far worse beatings earlier in his childhood until his craft-mistress had not-too subtly put an end to such future treatment once he fell under her lawful guidance and direction at age thirteen, for the most part. By village law, the lad was entitled to retain his prior childhood bed if his craft master or mistress had no facilities for boarding apprentices, but the other associated courtesies here under the miller’s roof were quite non-existent.

The village kitchen-mistress Saxleue saw that the growing boy got his regular meals, at the long communal tables with the rest of the villagers, but the lad never sat anywhere near his step-father or Brom. Larke didn’t mind this in the least.

He fell back asleep without a tinge of regret. He’d already spent far too many years of his younger life toiling for no pay or recompense for his step-father, who was in truth not even legally troth-bonded to his mother. They’d been engaged in promise-oath only, when Larke’s mother had died in childbirth delivering him. Quite the embarrassment to everyone in the village and an affront to his very honor that Havril had never forgotten! His guardianship to Larke was of a non-blood adoption, terminated by both law and custom when the lad assumed his apprenticeship over nine years earlier. Larke owed his adopted father no further debts of obligation ... nor did his treatment lend itself to performing any ‘favors’ out of kindness-debt, let alone any true ties of friendship-bond.

Clearly and beyond doubt, the miller hoped someday (soon) to never again lay eyes upon the lad, the all-too visible reminder of his past disgrace! Long ago, to be certain – but never once forgotten!

Awaking at the first note of the mid-afternoon horn, Larke arose refreshed for his guard duty labors and grabbed just his bow and spear before leaving his small garret room above the mill house. He owned a good set of scale armor stored away in his clothes chest but for guarding the normally well-protected mill pond today, such protection was quite unnecessary. The swamp lizards that made their way up the small mill stream into the retaining pond were invariably small ones, generally hand-sized hatchlings avoiding bigger predators in the great river. This late summer day was well-past their usual season as well for causing anything but very minor trouble to the village bathers. In late spring, it was habitual to assign two guards over the mill pond, but this afternoon Larke would be alone, and unlikely to encounter any problems whatsoever.

Already the lady bathers were assembling and beginning to strip down upon a small grassy slope above the furthest part of the pond away from the mill run, where the currents created by the great water mill forced a small but fast moving flow of waters back to the river. Today the mill wheels were grinding slowly and any currents in the pond would be negligible.

Larke could tell at a glance that the entire pond was currently quite safe, but he kept to his assigned duty and first walked around the pond entirely to make sure. Swamp lizards both large and small had razor sharp teeth, and the willingness to use them against any creature even far larger than themselves, but they were also very stupid and predictable. There were usually very easy to spot as they invariably basked on top of the warm waters with large portions of their head and nostrils quite visible, if one took the time to look for them.

With a nod of approval, the lad completed his circuit and pronounced the waters safe for bathing and the throng of happy overheated naked women splashed into the relatively cooler waters and took their well-deserved late afternoon respite. The men enjoyed their own assigned period of bathing and cooling down at this time on alternate days, but without an assigned guardian to watch over them. All young men and older were expected to be at least nominally adept with a spear, if not also bow and this reduced the need by half for the village to task one of the trained warriors of the village to perform daytime guard duties, in an assigned written rotation posted monthly on the walls of the village inn. If anyone swam in the mill pond at other hours during the day or at night, they were then quite on their own.

Larke enjoyed the fine views of the female flesh on display, particularly of several of the untrothed and unbonded maidens of his acquaintance. There was no nudity taboo here in the vast largely uncharted region of Mórdene, let alone at this lone village outpost in the Yelfen Swamp, as most outsiders tended to call this fen-ridden and nearly impassible district several weeks travel, at best, up the great Mórdain river. In their close-knit community of barely two hundred souls, there was very little personal privacy and the extreme sweltering heat and humidity of high summer made the wearing of even minimal body coverings something of a sweaty annoyance for nearly everyone.

From late spring to early fall, most women, especially those laboring in either the nearby wild rice field or performing tasks with the village walls, barely donned more than a few strips of tied cloth. One strip that nominally covered their waists while baring most of their legs, and the other to wrap around their breasts, more for structural support while working than for modesty. The younger and less busty women often did without the top, while laboring during the worst and hottest days of summer. Men working about or near the village generally wore just a loincloth themselves. Hunters or gatherers entering the great swamp itself needed to take much more precautionary measures and wore at least a stout pair of leather trousers and hard boots, to at least protect their legs and feet in the swamp.

Mórdene was a month’s travel or more to the south and east of the infamous Forests of Leodewude, considered by most to be the very fringes of human civilization. Even taking a boat mostly due east up the Mórdain River for a hundred leagues or more from the young growing coastal city of Mórdheath could take weeks, if the currents or winds were against the boatman. Towns and even villages along the great river were scarce here in this nearly uninhabited tropical wilderness there were but a half dozen small towns of little significance in-between their swamp village and Mórdheath.

To say that the Yelfen Swamp was vast would be something of an understatement. No human explorer or hunter had traversed even a small portion of this entire region but it was considered that the uninhabitable swamps here by the village stretched for at least a hundred leagues in nearly all directions. The shores of a very great lake could be found in a valley about three days travel away from the village to the northeast but even Larke himself had only explored a very small section of that shoreline as the young man could only ill-afford to ever be gone from the village for a moment longer than a full week. Clearly, he could already much surmise, that this vast lake might feed a number of great rivers to both the east and west, and perhaps the south as well, in addition to their home river.

Once on an unusually clear spring day before the rains, Larke had climbed up a tree near the great lake and thought that he could perhaps see hills and perhaps mountains to both the north and the east on the very far side of the vast lake. To the south was nothing but featureless swamp and rainforest as far as the eye could see. The call of the unknown had enticed to him on that day, but he had dutifully returned home to the village. Assuming that someday his seemingly endless apprenticeship would become complete and his life become his own, he meant to travel to each of those far distant hills ... to then discover what hitherto unseen and unknown lands yet lay beyond!

Today, it was instead the tanned wet bodies of two young ladies that quite caught his attentions, as indeed those playful young ladies were quite trying to catch his eye. Wyverna, was a lovely well-formed brunette and she had been of late quite willing to canoodle with him secretly under cover of darkness, and entirely without the knowledge of the village elders, especially the Women’s Council of Three. Those elder village matrons decided when and if promise-oaths of troth-bonding could be made ... and approved – or else quite forbidden. Larke was pretty sure that no such undertaking between them would or could be ever permitted. Like her monstrous namesake, Wyverna was already one of the very best village hunters, skilled with both the spear and the bow, but still accounted to be an apprentice. She was anticipating her bond-release by year’s end to become both a Master Hunter and be declared of full maturity, decreed a ‘woman’ in both mind and body by the Woman’s Council. She was of the average age and of above average intellect and martial skill, being just nineteen, to receive this freedom, and thus be able to legally undertake any oath, such as marriage vows.

Her companion and frequent partner in dalliances, both Sapphic in private and while sharing the occasional male sex partner such as Larke, was Breges, a softer spoken doe-eyed honey blond of the same age that worked as a weaver’s apprentice in the village. She had no skill at arms, rarely leaving the safety of the wooden village fence except to pick willow and softer marsh-reeds. As a lover, Breges’ skills were more much refined and exotic than her girlfriend’s. She’d taken her first lovers when young, far earlier than the Women’s Council would ever knowingly permit even the first stages of early sexual experimentation. The matrons kept a sharp eye for such things and freely dispensed herbal birth-control remedies for overly adventurous ladies far too young to be declared women or allowed to troth-bond with their beaus.

Both young ladies were bored beyond measure by the mundaneness of village life and the many hardships that were faced in the swamp. Neither would likely wed and raise their own children here, let alone live out the remainder of their lives at this village. Wyverna yearned to become a great warrior and travel the world as a sell-sword until she’d made her reputation and fortune. Breges just coveted a future life of idle luxury ... even if she had to earn it working on her knees or on her back as a whore, or so she often joked. I’m sure she was quite entirely serious. She had both the looks and the determination to either find herself a rich husband or in a decade of prosperous whoring own the largest and most notorious knocking shop in all of Mórdheath ... or even fabled wicked Corælyn!

Larke grinned but kept to his duties, trivial as they now were. The only moment that even offered the slightest cause for concern was when another older young woman grabbed a large eel out from the mud of the mill pond and grasped it to her groin as if it were a wiggling male penis (of quite exceptional size). With her squirming eel as a faux-penis she made forth to boldly menace with amusement any other woman within reach. Too slippery to hold, the flapping eel had slipped away to the safety of the pond after a few minutes and with much laughter the ladies found other amusements. For the most part, eels were harmless and quite commonplace in both the river and the mill pond, not to mention fairly good eating as well ... but something of an acquired taste. They did have small blunt teeth, but were designed for chewing plants underwater. Ladies (and men) had been bit before on occasion, but harmlessly so. At most just a sharp pinch to the fingers, much like the bite of a pestered turtle, many of which could also be caught here, but save for times of extreme need, not feasted upon like the eels.

As the sun set, the hitherto languid still summer breezes of the swamp began to blow, slightly at first and never with any meaningful force, but just enough to be a pleasure upon the ladies bare wet skin. Most of them took this time to lay out upon the soft grass in small conversational groups, to brush out each other’s hair. Other young ladies, still quite naked, took this opportunity to gather up their scraps of clothing and run to greet their various lovers and troth-mates, often for a quick quiet lovemaking or cuddling before the call of the dinner hour.

Soon, nearly everyone else had left for the village, except for Wyverna and Breges. With a conspiratorial wink, the young ladies got up to their feet and clasped their hands together while giggling, then wandered off behind the gentle green hillside to a nearby copse of small trees, barely much larger than bushes. Here, now quite out of sight from the mill pond, or even the water mill and the rest of the village, the two giggling lovers disappeared out of site. The copse was well known and often used as a local trysting spot and Larke smiled with anticipation, but waited yet another few minutes for the last of the bathers to leave and return to the village. His assigned task here was now entirely completed.

Approaching the covered copse, he could hear giggles of amusement and already some sighs of pleasure even before he pushed aside some branches to better view the young ladies. Both were already quite busy, with their mouths upon each’s lips and breasts, while they both stroked their fingers upon the other’s moistened sex, each fingering the other’s clit with increasingly desperate need. Larke let the lovers enjoy their fun alone until Breges moved her mouth down to lick her girlfriend’s breasts and then slid her tongue downwards further until it could reach her cunt, leaving Wyverna’s mouth quite free and available for the eager young lad to stick his already rampant cock right into her waiting mouth. She sucked the fully stiffened member with great enthusiasm, and even Breges stopped her own tongue-lapping to remark that Larke was indeed the largest and most endowed male in the entire village ... and to save some of that cum for her!

She wouldn’t have to wait long!

“Stuff it up into that slut and make her squeal,” Wyverna hissed as she licked the underside of Larke’s cock and then his balls as her girlfriend licked her clit in an increasing frenzy, “cum into that whore! Right when she makes me cum too!”

The lad didn’t need any further encouragement. With Brege’s shapely rear sticking up and out as she ate out her lover on all fours, Larke had no difficulty at all mounting her from behind. She was tight, but well lubricated, allowing him to slide all the way into her with little resistance. Soon they had a nice rocking motion going where with each thrust he drove the face of the slutty blond ever yet harder into the groin of their brunette lover. Wyverna started her loud cry of orgasm as she clamped Brege’s head tightly between her thighs, trapping her tongue in place over her clit as she took her pleasure. It didn’t take Larke all that long before he too grunted loudly with delight as he came into Breges.

The full semen load fairly flowed from out of the blonde’s vaginal lips and down her groin as she quickly turned herself around and sat upon her girlfriend’s face. Now with her dripping cum-filled snatch right over the brunette’s mouth and tongue, it was Brege’s turn to be eaten out. Grabbing Larke’s still firm cock with her hands she leaned forward enough to take it into her mouth for a few minutes of enthusiastic cleaning before she reluctantly withdrew it and guided it with her hand into Wyverna’s well-licked snatch. Once her male lover was adequately inserted, she laid down further into a sixty-nine so that she could both lick Larke’s cock and her girlfriend’s clit more or less in sequence.

Having cum just a short time previously, Larke could have kept his growing urge to ejaculate again under much better control, but the combination of Wyverna’s warm and very wet vagina and Brege’s tongue was nearly overpowering. Still he concentrated his thoughts on giving his primary lover pleasure just awhile longer until they were all quite distracted by an unexpected horn alarm warning from the watchman by the village gate, which was next to the river pier. Five long undulating wails, then a long pause, then the five wails of the horn yet once more.

The young trio relaxed and gently, Larke began to work his cock slowly in and out of his lover once more. It was not an alarm warning of danger. This was just an alert that a boat was spotted downriver heading towards the village. Flatboat merchants came upriver to the settlement usually twice a year but it was still a month or so early in the season to be expecting their next usual visit.

“Flatboats Ho!” Beorht, the Gatekeeper could now be heard to cry out in his elderly but clear and distinct voice. The senior watchman had more grey than black in his hair and beard but there was nothing wrong with his eyes. He’d clearly spotted the semi-annual arrival of the traders and not an incursion of river pirates. This welcome arrival would bring the entire village down to the piers, waiting eagerly for news of the world and the vaguest hint of any new gossip.

“Let’s finish up,” Wyverna gasped, gently lifting Brege’s wet groin off of her face, which was quite well covered with vaginal and seminal juices, “go ahead and slide into my ass ... that always make you shoot pretty quickly in there. We need to get back to the village!”

“Because it’s warm and oh-so very tight in there,” Brege laughed, lifting her head up enough so that she could see to grab both of Wyverna’s legs, which she then raised up and tucked under her own arms so that Larke had a better view and angle of her lover’s ass. As Larke pulled his wet cock out, Brege took the opportunity to stuff it into her mouth to make sure that it was lubricated enough for Wyverna’s ass. Certain that the member was quite wet enough, Brege kept Wyverna’s legs pinned up, knees up by her chest, so that she could bend down and thoroughly lick her girlfriend’s asshole and slowly while once again licking her clit, she now guided Larke’s cock into Wyverna’s ass.

“Now, fuck that bitch’s ass hard! I want to hear her moan!” Brege laughed as she resumed licking Wyverna’s clit as her own groin squirmed downwards to rest upon her girlfriend’s face once more.

It was warm and very tight there and indeed the lad needed little verbal encouragement to quickly empty his second load of the afternoon. Rising up immediately afterwards to quickly wash up and dress, with no time for further enjoying each other’s company, the youths scurried back to the village and joined everyone else at the pier. The pair of trader flatboats was just being poled up to the dock so Larke and his lovers had not yet missed a thing.

Like most events involving interaction with near-strangers, certain formalities and rituals would be observed. Customarily, someone from the village council (usually Havril) would first give the traders the pledge of welcome and offer a hand up to assist the head trader from his boat onto the dock. Together, a small prayer would then immediately be offered to Cennan, the God of Trade, Commerce and Crafting. Usually at the end of the prayer a small silver coin would be thrown into the river as a sort of sacrifice for their safe travels. If the passage had been hard or dangerous, a greater coin might be given. Then the head merchant would raise his hands and offer a pledge of fair dealing, albeit not quite an oath of honesty. Even merchants have their limits.

Then, once all of these formalities have been observed, the head trader will tell everyone of the most recent news, as his crew started to unload their trade goods onto the grass of the riverbank. Near the main village gate a slightly elevated large wooden platform deck with a thatched roof suspended by four stout poles had been built for the trader’s use, and by tomorrow morning all of the trade goods of both parties would be brought here. The actually trading would not start until the horn of noon tomorrow and until then the merchants and crew would be treated as honored guests and fed at both supper and breakfast tomorrow at the common table.

The head merchant, whose name Larke couldn’t quite catch (something like Raderyn or Braeburn), indeed had news worth hearing. The kingdoms of Acquila and Helden, our two nearest neighbors to the north and west of these vast uncoveted fenlands of Mórdene had at last gone to war in great earnest. All for the control of a borderland river valley that had been ill-regarded by both ... until silver was found there! Silver as it has always been, is the fuel of both the coins of kingdoms and the most necessary ingredient for sorcery.

The two quarrelsome kingdoms had once been a common realm united under a series of strong kings, and reasonably prosperous too. Unwisely, the last of those great monarchs on his deathbed divided the kingdom between his two sons, creating separate realms for each. The siblings had squabbled ever since and now both sought to reunite by force what had been partitioned over thirty years ago.

It was madness, the head merchant was certain. The borderland was quite wild and nearly valueless (before the silver was discovered). Like this very village, that more northern disputed river valley also had a fetid swamp at the sea coast and no port, or any suitable place to build one. It also had no towns or even decent sized villages to speak of, very little flat land worth farming, and didn’t possess a single notable road. What it did have was monsters, Eotenas, plentiful and in great numbers in this wilderness, of which the goblins and other nihtgenga or night-goers, were the least dangerous.

These were not only disputed lands, but perhaps also forbidden ones as well. There had been rumors that several priests had warned of the evils that would result should men claim this river valley sacred and protected by the Gods themselves. Or so, that was the story on the docks of Mórdheath.

For merchants, wars and the rumors of war mean both uncertainty and yet also opportunity. “My hunter friends,” the head merchant loudly called out after announcing news of the regional conflict, “I’m probably cutting my own purse by saying this, but in truth I need every swamp lizard hide that you can kill or drag still kicking to these docks. Feral hog hides too, perhaps I’ll need even more! Already on the wharves of Mórdheath, armor and shields made from swamp lizard scales sell for 50% more than they would have in spring. By next spring the prices will have fully doubled. Same too with hog hides! Two armies will need boots to shoe their recruits, and strong cotton cloth for their uniforms. By spring also, there will be many companies of hunters travelling up the river east, to reach the swamps here as well. To seek their fortunes in these marshlands by hunting swamp lizards. Whether that will be a boon or a bane upon your community, I cannot say. Also, we will want your stored beans, rice and other preserved foods too ... and herbal medicines – all that you can now spare, these I can now buy, and at a premium!”

The head trader looked specifically at the herbalist craft-mistress, Frigyth, the Mistress of Physic and Herbology and she gave him a short nod of confirmation. She in turn then glanced over to Larke and he also gave her a brief nod in acknowledgement. It was a casual look of summons, to see her right away as soon as possible. For the foreseeable future it seemed that Larke would be spending a great many days and nights in the deeper parts of the swamp!

Her best healing balm for wounds had seven ingredients, five of them commonplace and easily enough obtained by her usual four young female apprentices. The remaining two items were inconvenient to obtain, to say the least. The simpler (and most important) ingredient was a heavy moss that only grew on the north sides of certain trees in northern, less marshy regions of the swamp ... well into the no-man’s-land between human and Yelfen lands. The last component was the small black larvae of a shy thumb-sized horned pine beetle that preferred living under rotting logs (usually pine) and also tended to be best found up north, across the river, well inside the border territory.

Mistress Frigyth earned a half shilling, a six pence for each tiny pot of ointment, the pottery small enough to rest comfortably inside of a small child’s hand. What the master-trader in turn received back home in Mórdheath was undoubtedly four times this - a silver crown each, if not more! The Mistresses remedies and cures always had most excellent results and the master-trader was always eager to deal with her.

Larke had to smile as he thought of the coins his mistress was about to earn! In truth, a great many of her herbal recipes had been discovered by him, earned in coup-payment from Yelfen hunters and herbalists these last nine years. His mistress was kind enough to him as a crafts-mistress, but her craft-book had held only forty-two recipes when he first began working for her. Now today, that same book held a hundred plus twelve! Most of this new learning assembled by his own initiative.

Larke’s crafts-mistress was fair and not unappreciative ... but neither could she grant the lad his much desired and long overdue master’s accreditation, and his independence, without village council and elder approval. It was an old complaint, truly. Larke should have been ‘declared’ a man by the village council years ago, supported at least privately by the Women’s Council as well.

Mistress Frigyth had not been either negligent or indisposed to granting Larke’s freedom and it was clear that her hands had been completely tied in this matter by her elders for at least several years. This was of very small comfort however, and almost every day the lad’s heart was drawn ever deeper towards the untraveled wilderness around him. No one would have blamed him if he had just packed up his few personal belongs and just left, never to return. In fact, the lad could tell with growing certainty that this was just what many of the villagers (especially his step-father) did indeed want!

Out of loyalty, perhaps a touch misplaced, he had to admit, he resolved to stay on. War did mean opportunity ... and now it meant that his crafts-mistresses trade goods were now more in demand than ever. Havril and his brother Brom might indeed seriously dislike and even hate Larke, but they both also liked plenty of good hard silver in the village purse too!

Perhaps, the lad wondered as the village assembly by the riverside broke up just after the dinner horn sounded, this increase in coinage might be enough to apply pressure to both Council’s to win his freedom? It was worth discussing with Mistress Frigyth, while at their meal together.

“Ok, so finding more Fire-Bellies tonight is the first priority,” Larke agreed, confirming the instructions of his mistress, “but thereafter, finding black pine beetle larva and ghost-moss should become my most important task in the weeks thereafter.”

“Yes,” she agreed, “I’ve had the girls out behind the shed digging out the frog pond about a foot deeper and they’ve added water and checked the fence around it, twice. No more frog escapees for a while, hopefully at least until their spring breeding season. I really need to make that joint medicine tonight ... in fact if you return early, which is doubtful, awaken me and I’ll start it at once. We need at least one of the matron’s on our side, sooner or later, and without that joint balm Ægetha doesn’t sleep at night, even in this jungle heat!”

Normally, Fire-Bellied frogs were easy enough to raise and a common ingredient in about a dozen recipes where heat was a necessary property. The frogs didn’t actually possess any fire, but their skin excreted a very strong caustic much like the hottest of peppers when the small amphibians felt endangered or threatened, like by being picked up and held. A small frog pond behind her craft-hut usually kept the creatures safe enough, tended by the younger female apprentices ... except when a collapsed section of fence post recently permitted most of the captured pond frogs to escape outside. If Larke could capture at least dozen or more, they’d have enough to regularly harvest the caustic for use in arthritis balms and other skin lotions.

“I’m relying on you to find the larvae and moss,” she added, “just as much of it as you can gather in the next month until the traders return again next month, before the autumn rains start and make poling a flatboat upriver a near impossibility, even for rich profits. Riene ought to have been old enough and with enough experience now, but I cannot bring myself to trust her that far out on her own. Not to mention that she’d attract every swamp lizard for miles with her thrashing and flailing about!”

“She’d need a pair of hunters for escort,” Larke agreed, “for certain ... and now there’d likely be none to spare. Every boy and girl that can hold a bow or spear without being a danger to themselves or others will be out in the swamp with the hunters collecting lizard scales and boar hides. Riene ... could never do that!”

Riene was kind hearted and invariably polite and if placed nose into the recipe book could adequately measure and mix preparations, but she was a dangerous liability unsupervised on her own, especially in the swamp. She was absent-minded and prone to getting distracted entirely too easily, invariably at the wrong time or in a dangerous place. Larke had tried for years to teach her how to gather ingredients in the swamp but had largely failed. She was even now as likely to grab the wrong plant root in the swamp as pick up an incorrect jar of materials from the shelf. Just seventeen, and rather too romantically absorbed by thoughts of the equally useless Mildrad the mill-boy, the girl in a few more years might become adequate as an apothecary ... but she’d never be able to gather her own raw materials with any safety.

In fairness and truth, none of the current four apprentices showed much if any particular talent for the trade, although the youngest Goldhe, the newest young apprentice of just age thirteen, could at least be relied upon to do the tasks given to her, completely and reasonably accurately. Alas, still much too young to be taken out into the swamps beyond eyesight of the village.

“Also,” Frigyth added, “did you see who else arrived on the trade-boats? Father Wilbehrt from the temple of Yweorfan in Mórdheath! Now that’s an unexpected but pleasant surprise! I’ve a mind to pick his brain about a few matters and you can be sure that he’ll have a few choices words to say tonight before your step-father and much of the village. If I’m not much mistaken, some long overdue boils are about to be lanced with a hot needle and if I were you, my not so young apprentice, I’d be a fly listening upon that wall when it occurs, regardless of the frogs, larvae and moss! They can all wait for another hour or two. I smell change in the air ... and not all change is for the better!”

Now that was a surprise! Larke had only remembered meeting the priest on two prior occasions, the last time was at least five years ago. There were not many other priests anywhere near Mórdene, and the now elderly priest of the God of Cultivation was renowned for his goodliness and his attendance upon even the most remote villages of the region, but he had not received the respect due to him here in the past. Father Wilbehrt had even been heard to loudly exchange words in growing anger with his step-father and his brother the miller! No one would tell him why at the time and now it had been many years before the priest had returned. For a village often living close to the edge of hunger, with barely enough extra food even with good wild rice, swamp bean and river millet grain harvests, angering the servant of a God ... especially one of planting and a bountiful harvest, was never a wise thing to do!

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